Lightweight Advocacy

I was at a board meeting of a non profit this week and the talk turned to "advocacy" and whether or not the non profit should be doing any of that. I had to ask what the definition of advocacy was just to be clear what we were talking about. It's not something I've traditionally been involved in.

When I think of advocacy, I think of politics, lobbying, public relations, and a bunch of other "heavyweight" behaviors that I abhor. Wikipedia's definition of advocacy is:

Advocacy is the pursuit of influencing outcomes — including public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions — that directly affect people’s current lives. (Cohen, 2001)

Thankfully, the non profit concluded that it should largely keep doing what it is doing and let the work they do, the people they engage, and the outcomes they produce send the message. That's my kind of advocacy.

Later in the week, I read Brad Feld's blog post urging immigrant startup founders to tell their story. The "startup visa working group" which I am a member of is recruiting immigrant startup founders to tell their story online here. If you are an immigrant startup founder, I urge you to go do that. It won't take long and will be incredibly valuable "advocacy" on an important issue.

And it occurred to me that the "startup visa movement" is a case study in lightweight advocacy.

The problem is relatively simple and should be easy to fix. If you are an immigrant starting a company here in the US, you can get kicked out of the country if you don't have the right visa. I've seen it happen a couple times in the past year to founders in our portfolio.

And these are people starting new companies here in the US who are hiring people and creating new jobs, and not just any job, but high paying jobs. It makes no sense to kick these people out of the country. It's hurtful to them, their companies, and our country and economy.

So last September, Brad Feld wrote a post about this issue on his blog. It attracted a fair bit of interest in the VC and entrepreneur community, got a lot of comments, and got some people talking to each other. Brad's post was inspired by an essay Paul Graham had written last spring.

As a result of Brad's post, we formed a working group of a few VCs and a few entrepreneurs that we call the "startup visa group." We've continued to blog about this issue, but more importantly, we've started calling and talking to our elected officials and their staffs. We have a plan and we have a legislative proposal to fix this issue.

Now we are collecting the stories that we need to galvanize the elected officials to act. When that is done, the group is headed to Washington to push this forward.

There are no lobbyists involved. There is no PR firm involved. No campaign contributions have been made. No PACs or other advocacy groups have been formed.

Everyone involved has a full time job either starting and running a company or building and managing a portfolio of companies. We are doing this "nights and weekends."

And we can do that because this is "lightweight advocacy". We are using our blogs, the internet, social media, and our relationships with our elected officials to move this issue forward. We'll see if we are effective. I sure hope we will be. It will fix an important issue in the startup economy and it will be yet another example of the internet is providing tools to do things the way they should be done.